Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: Frostflower and Thorn

Book Review: 'Frostflower and Thorn' by Phyllis Ann Karr

2 / 5 Stars

‘Frostflower and Thorn’ (276 pp.) was published by Berkley Books in November, 1980. The cover artist is Enrich.

‘Frostflower’ was Phyllis Ann Karr’s first novel; a sequel, ‘Frostflower and Windbourne’, was published in 1982.

Nowadays female authors and female heroines are commonplace in the fantasy genre, and in fact make up the majority of the DAW Books catalog; but at the time it was published, ‘Frostflower’ was comparatively rare in these regards.

The book certainly has an interesting premise: what happens when a female swordswoman / barbarian – think Red Sonja – gets pregnant ?

And insists upon having an abortion - !?

As ‘Frostflower’ opens, that is the case indeed for its titular heroine, Thorn. Following a dalliance with a merchant, Thorn is Knocked Up....... a physical state she views with disgust, as it prevents her from earning her trade as a hireling swordswoman among the compounds and settlements of the Tanglelands (in the standard-issue medieval fantasy world of the novel, all combat is handled by guilds of swordswomen according to strict rules of engagement – males are restricted to non-combat pursuits).

As Thorn ponders her next move, the softspoken sorceress Frostflower offers to help: using her magic, within the afternoon she will accelerate the growth of the fetus until it is at the stage of a full-term, nine-month fetus, ready for delivery - ! What does Frostflower want in return ? Merely to keep the infant and raise it as her own.

Despite her reservations at being subjected to a bizarre magical ritual, Thorn agrees, and in the space of an afternoon, she does indeed give birth to an infant boy. Naming her adopted son ‘Starwind’, Frostflower requests Thorn’s assistance in escorting mother and child to far-off Windslope Retreat, Frostflower’s home. Thorn grudgingly agrees.

Unfortunately, en route to Windslope, the pair stumble upon a secret fertility ceremony being performed by Maldron, the highest-ranking Farmer-Priest of the Tanglelands. Violence ensues, and Frostflower and Thorn succeed in escaping Maldron’s clutches……but they now find themselves declared outlaws, hunted across the Tanglelands by order of the Farmer-Priests.

In a land where the most brutal and cruel of punishments are routinely meted out to violators of the Farmer-Priests’ creed, the two women must use every ruse and wile at their command if they are to escape Maldron’s net and reach the safety of Windslope……

I found ‘Frostflower and Thorn’ to be something of a slog to get through. While the premise is certainly offbeat and novel from a sword-and-sorcery standpoint, the book suffers from being heavily overwritten.

Author Karr regularly devotes much of the narrative to lengthy segments of exposition, making the book’s too-few action scenes too plodding and drawn-out be very effective.

In terms of characterization, while Thorn makes a reasonably good female version of Conan the Barbarian, the Frostflower character is so passive and indecisive – even while enduring all manner of graphic abuse from the plot’s major villain – that I gradually became tired of reading those sections of the narrative devoted to her misadventures.

Summing up, ‘Frostflower and Thorn’ is one of those first novels that could have benefited quite a bit from a more invested editorial hand. As it stands, only readers with quite a bit of patience will find it rewarding.

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